Several years ago, I met a chap called Mick at a small group meeting. I’m highly sensitive to the emotions of others, and listening to this guy pray made my bones ache:
“This is so, so difficult, but if it draws me closer to you, it’ll all be worth it.”
Those words told me a lot – that Mick associated God with his pain, believing there was some kind of lesson he needed to learn before God would set him free from his torment. After the meeting, I took him aside and offered to help; I just can’t leave people in that state if they’re willing to heal, and thankfully Mick was up for it, so we began to talk and pray on a regular basis.
It might seem bold to approach a stranger in this way, but I’m accustomed to following the Spirit’s leading and have seen him deliver people from pain and suffering time and again. The Lord is far more compassionate than you or I, and is always zealous for his children’s freedom.
I won’t go into the details of Mick’s situation, other than to say he had been profoundly betrayed by someone close to him. It quickly became clear to me that Mick was compounding his suffering by keeping himself at the point of pain. The Spirit gave me a ‘vision’ (in the least grand sense of the term) of Mick driving obsessively round a roundabout, repeatedly bypassing an exit he could take and continuing to circle.
Mick told me: “There’s a message in the mess”, and though he couldn’t see it at the time, he was unwilling to move on until he’d learned it. In other words, he thought that his suffering was part of a divine plan for his betterment.
I shattered that notion as hard as I could. This is one of Evangelicalism’s worst deceits, keeping people stuck in their pain because they associate it with discipleship. Just awful!
The Bible is clear that we can rejoice in our sufferings and in the development of our characters through difficult times, but it does not state that God is the author or approver of the suffering itself. He is not with the trial, aiming to improve us – he is with us, wanting us to break free.
A Clear Understanding of the Nature of God
Of all the New Testament writers, James seems to have understood this best. Indeed, it is James who writes of rejoicing in suffering. James 1:2-4,
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Despite this exhortation to learn what we can from our sufferings, James is alert to the dangers of imposing a narrative, asserting that we must never accuse God of sending these trials (verse 13):
When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.
To be clear, the word translated ‘tempt’ by the NIV is the same root word used in verse 2, translated ‘trials’. The word is ‘peirazw’, Strong’s reference G3985, meaning ‘endeavour, scrutinise, entice, discipline, assay, examine, go about, prove, tempt, try’. James 1:13 then, just as accurately reads:
When tested, no one should say, ‘God is testing me.’ For God cannot be tested by evil, nor does he test anyone.
The meaning of this is simple – God cannot give what he doesn’t have. He has no evil up his sleeves to bestow on us, and his involvement in our trials is always to help us overcome. James gets to the heart of the matter in verses 16-17:
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
Note the warning – ‘Don’t be deceived’! Don’t let your understanding of the nature of God become tarnished. Only good and perfect gifts come from the Lord! This is a structural pillar of an intimate relationship with God – knowing that the Lord is the source of good and never evil; that he is only light and never darkness; that he bestows gifts but never steals; that he is unchangingly faithful and never mercurial. Sometimes I think believers trap themselves in all kinds of narratives about their sufferings and forget that the Gospel is good news.
The key to helping Mick was exhorting him to stop looking for ‘a message in the mess’ and embrace a simple, childlike view of God’s goodness. He stopped looking for a story and moved on, accepting that however much a person loves God, other people have their own choices to make that are beyond our ability to control. In other words, sh*t happens. Mick and I have been fast friend since that time and I’m happy to say his growth and freedom have only increased.
Narratives Limit Growth
Storytelling is a very human thing to do, but when it comes to God’s intervention in our lives, imposing a narrative can be perilous. For starters, a narrative is only an interpretation – the assumed whys and wherefores of actual events – but if we retell it often enough, it can feel as real as the events themselves. Once the story we tell ourselves becomes embedded in our thinking, we become subject to confirmation bias, looking to reinforce our existing view rather than staying alert to the truth. When further events challenge a believer’s story, the person with a dearly beloved narrative enters a world of confusion.
Very often, the narratives a believer imposes are informed by their theological position. Again, this is an easy trap to fall into, but the story can blind us to new revelation. What if the Lord is trying to free a believer from theological deceit, but their theology is intertwined with a cherished narrative? The value placed on the narrative can harden their heart to the point where they can’t discern the Spirit’s voice.
The Only Godly Narrative
I have Crohn’s Disease, along with other conditions that in conjunction amount to a tremendous burden. There have been plenty of opportunities to tie my various sufferings up with a neat bow, binding them together in a highly specific story about why these things have happened to me, but I’ve never perceived any comfort in doing so. I think that’s because of a particular early experience:
When I was 14, the church of my youth was devastated by the death of a 10 year-old boy, knocked off his bike by a car while out playing. Within a matter of days, his parents stood before the congregation and told us that God had ‘taken’ their son. My church followed pretty standard Evangelical theology, believing that God is in control of everything, all the time. Our bookshelf at home was littered with the autobiographies of people like Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who became paralysed in a swimming accident and who has spent her life talking and writing about why God ‘allows’ this sort of thing to happen. I was well versed in tales of suffering believers, but this was the first time I’d experienced this kind of thinking in the context of a real world tragedy. The blood froze in my veins. I knew that what was said amounted to blasphemy – an ugly slogan, scrawled across God’s good nature.
Naturally, I have nothing but sympathy for the parents, who were just holding to the beliefs of their denomination. The death of their son was tragic, but their pain was locked in place by the narrative they imposed. Once a believer adopts this kind of narrative, closeness with God must become an impossibility. The subconscious parts of our minds are much smarter than their conscious counterparts, and whatever a person claims to accept, their inner child will never feel safe in the presence of a monster. If God ‘took’ your child, what else might be do?
My life got turned upside down in my early twenties, but even when battered by crises of physical and mental health, I knew not to impose a narrative on my suffering. There’s only one narrative I cling to – that Jesus is the perfect and full manifestation of God’s nature, revealing him to be humble, compassionate, and merciful.
I can’t explain why the world is the way it is, or why bad things happen to ‘good people’, but I don’t suffer from the dreadful illusion that God is in control (discussed in a previous article). Rather than overinterpret the events of my life, I prefer to stick with the simple knowledge of God’s unchanging nature. I keep my eyes on Jesus, trusting his consistent goodness and revelling in his kindness. Whatever the future brings, I know my Lord and will never be confused about his loving nature. I won’t need to readjust an old narrative or craft a new one, because I don’t interpret the events of my life as expressions of his will. My hope in writing this is that readers will be able to slice away the convoluted knots that bind them and embrace a simple, childlike understanding of the goodness of God. John 10:10,
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Note from the author: though I work hard as a freelance writer, I choose to spend time on these articles when I could be earning. If you want to support me, perhaps to help ensure that what I write continues to get ‘out there’, you can do so through my Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/duncanedwardpile